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EXCLUSIVE: Michelin sinks its teeth into incentive travel

Tyre brand known for its culinary guides takes a slice of the corporate incentive travel pie following the expansion of Michelin Experience. 

When the Michelin Guide launched in 1900 it was a marketing ploy (perhaps the first example of content marketing) to sell tyres. The Michelin brothers, Ándre and Édouard, who started the tyre company 11 years earlier, created guides that catalogued hotels, mechanics, and rest stops in an attempt to promote travel around regional France — and the Michelin tyres needed to complete the journey.

In 1926, the guide expanded to include restaurants, highlighting food worth travelling for. From humble beginnings, the Michelin star rating is now considered the “Oscars of the culinary industry”. Today, the recognisable red guides are available in more than 25 countries (six in Asia), and have revolutionised not only the way we eat, but how and why we travel.

Tourism boards in places like Seoul, Singapore and Thailand are cashing in on the rise of gastrotourism and with it, the increased popularity of the Michelin brand in Asia.

“After expanding the Michelin Guide into Asia, we started looking at new ways to leverage this brand asset,” explains Tom Jupena, marketing & sales director, Michelin Travel & Lifestyle, North America. “The annual launch event in Singapore is now one of our biggest, globally, and this really opened up our thinking towards events.”

Michelin Guide launched in Singapore in 2016 (source: Singapore Tatler)

A recent report by the Economist Intelligence Unit found that culinary experiences are a determining factor when it comes to bleisure (business and leisure) travel. This is consistent with current incentive travel trends across Asia Pacific, where highly localised cultural interactions and farm-to-fork dining options are high on the agenda.

Indeed, Michelin’s own 2017 Grand Tour of Switzerland incentive programme, which rewarded 120 of Michelin USA’s top clients and distributors, was recently recognised for ‘Excellence in Incentive Travel: Europe’ at the SITE 2018 Crystal Awards.

Produced in conjunction with Ovation Global DMC, the programme saw six waves of approximately 20 guests embark on a week-long road trip through the Swiss Alps.

The immersive driving experience followed the 1,609-km circuit mapped out in the Michelin Green Guide Grand Tour of Switzerland, which featured scenic lakes and alpine passes, landmark hotels and some of the country’s best restaurants.

“We worked closely with Ovation to ensure everything — from the driving route, to the lunch spots, and nightly, personalised room drops — was executed perfectly, every time, six times over,” says Ryan Hilley, head of Michelin Experience, North America.

“When you deliver such a high-quality brand experience, it’s the small details — those magic moments — that really matter.”

Michelin saw a 23 per cent increase in incremental sales as a result of the incentive, and participants rated it 10 out of 10.

Award winning… Grand Tour of Switzerland

The Michelin Experience division is now looking to create similar experiences for other brands, combining its unrivalled access to the world’s top chefs with its high-performance tyres (often attached to luxury vehicles) to carve out its own slice of the incentive travel pie.

“As a global group, we recognise the value in revenue-generating, experiential travel for corporate partners,” Hilley says.

In January this year, Michelin teamed up with aircraft manufacturer Cirrus to offer premium dining experiences to customers, which include VIP transfers and accommodation. A similar partnership has also been established with Arch motorcycles, co-founded by Keanu Reeves (yes, the actor) and Gard Hollinger.

In April, Michelin hosted a two-day experience in Los Angeles for 10 guests. A ‘top secret’ itinerary of racing and dining included an exclusive tour of comedian Jay Leno’s extensive car collection, led by the former Tonight Show host himself; and lunch at Arch motorcycle’s garage where Reeves and Hollinger made a surprise appearance and dined with guests.

The group was then taken on a behind-the-scenes tour of Wolfgang Puck’s famed Beverly Hills steakhouse, CUT, where the Michelin-starred chef hosted a cooking masterclass and judged each participant on their risotto-making skills. In case the risotto wasn’t enough, a five-course dinner followed.

And this is just the beginning.

“Moving forward, we really want to open up avenues through DMCs and event agencies,” Hilley says.

Unrivalled access… Jay Leno and Keanu Reeves meet delegates in Los Angeles.

“A lot of event agencies are already including Michelin-starred dining in a lot of their programmes, but actually partnering with us will give them a leg-up on the competition because when Michelin comes in, it changes things. It changes access.”

He adds: “We’re not providing cookie-cutter experiences. When you have a brand endorsement from someone like Keanu Reeves, you can’t put a dollar on that. He sees the value in selling an experience to guests and is happy to share his story.”

As part of Michelin Experience’s ongoing engagement strategy, Hilley plans to leverage connections with international event agencies, like Ovation Global DMC, and will be attending IMEX Frankfurt next week (21-23 May).